24th Sunday after Pentecost

Document Sample
24th Sunday after Pentecost Powered By Docstoc
					24th Sunday after Pentecost
Sermon 11.11.07
Scripture:      Job 19:23-27
                Luke 20:27-38

        There is no death—the thing that we call death
        Is but another, sadder name for life,
        Which is itself an insufficient name,
        Faint recognition of that unknown Life—
        That Power whose shadow is the Universe.
                         ~Richard Henry Stoddard

        In the foreground of the photograph, two children are running toward the photographer.
They are both about to leave the ground again. Two children in the background already have. They
are mid-step in mid-air. All four are smiling, two have their tongues out, as if wagging them happily.
Each is wearing a light jacket, unzipped, as if spring has finally arrived. Two are carrying papers, as
if they’re coming home from school. The third has absentmindedly let go of her paper and it’s stuck
against her belly. Her running keeps it from falling to the pavement. It looks as if it’s been pinned
to her shirt. They are quick, the very picture of life. There is no grass beneath their feet, only
pavement. There are no trees to be seen, just a few low-lying bushes, outnumbered though by
dumpsters. On the right side of the photo there is a basketball hoop, on the left a telephone pole
and a chain link fence, an urban forest. And the backdrop, a bit out of focus, is the broad face of
one of 31 high-rise buildings that constitute Cabrini Green.
        John H. White made a career photographing life in Chicago for the Chicago Sun Times. He
covered his share of political rallies, robberies, fires and murders. But he claims that what he loves
most are to take uplifting pictures, “young dancers rehearsing at a new high school for the
performing arts or children running joyfully through Cabrini Green.” This is what won Mr. White
the Pulitzer Prize in 1982—a reflection of a year in the life of the city. “The purpose,” he explained,
“was to share slices of life from all walks of life; to be the psalm of the life of people. Most people
get a steady diet of the hard news, the pain. I like to think that these pictures give the benefit of the
joy and peace that life has also,” that they offer balance, wholeness. “I wasn’t trying to take
pictures,” he said. “I was trying to share life.”
        Life! Five times Mr. White refers to life. Yet, if this was what he wanted to offer the world
through his photos, he might have chosen a better place to look than Cabrini Green. The most
notorious housing project in Chicago, if not in the United States, Cabrini Green, in 1982 when those
children lived there, had evolved from three separate housing developments, the first built in 1943,

the second in 1958, and the third in 1962. At that time, this project housed, on 70 acres, in 86
buildings, 3,606 families, 6,335 people. 99% were African American. 93% were unemployed. 62%
were under the age of 21. And only 8% of the units then complied with federal housing quality
standards. In the words of a police officer whose beat was through Cabrini, “It was a very
depressed area.” In the words of an 18-year old resident, who quit school in the 9th grade because it
wasn’t safe, drug deals and homicides happen “everyday and are very common.” When she was
eventually working toward her GED with the hopes of getting a job, her best bet was one at the
Walgreen’s Pharmacy that had just opened nearby. In the words of Rudolph Willis, who grew up
there and then managed to get out, to get through high school and college, through medical school
and residency, who is now an oncologist and who wrote of his escape, “Defeat was like an heirloom
in Cabrini, passed down through the generations. Hopelessness was endemic within those concrete
          Life. Four times Mr. White refers to life, and so he found it, and in the most unlikely
place—on this blacktop plain, children running joyfully. So he found it—even in this valley of the
shadow of death, children fearing no evil. And whether goodness and mercy followed them for the
rest of their lives, I can’t say. They would be about my age, if indeed they survived into adulthood.
But at that moment as children they were a psalm of life, such that this certainly is true—that they
dwell, or will dwell, in the house of the Lord forever.
          The Sadducees didn’t believe such a thing. Strict constructionists regarding Torah, the
Sadducees only believed what was spoken of in the Five Books of Moses. If it wasn’t in Genesis,
Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy, it wasn’t a legitimate thing to believe in. The priest
Zadok was their forebear, who lived at the time when King David had the Ark of the Covenant
brought into Jerusalem. Zadok was there, among the other Levite priests carrying the Ark with their
own two hands, and he was there when this priesthood established religious practices for the people
now that they were settled in the Promised Land. Zadok was there when Solomon succeeded David
on the throne, and when the Temple was built, and when now the priesthood established the
Temple cult. Thus, the Sadducees took this tradition of Zadok seriously that served as a foundation
for the common life of the Judeans, and they regarded as secondary the writings that came later—
the prophetic and poetic writings, and the oral tradition of the Talmud and the Mishnah.
          I tell you this because it was in these later writings that the idea of a Resurrection evolved
and developed. As Christians, we might think that such a concept arose (so to speak) out of the
New Testament. In fact, the foundation for this was laid much earlier, as when, in the 9th century,

the prophets Elijah and Elisha performed miraculous resuscitations of individuals who had recently
died, and in the 6th century the prophet Ezekiel spurred hope for a general resurrection of those long
dead when he imagined a valley of dried bones coming back to life, and in the 4th century the long-
suffering Job, in his desperation, confessed, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he
will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see
God, whom I shall see by my side, and my eyes shall behold…!” But none of these writings are
ones the Sadducees would have taken as primary, so the Resurrection wasn’t something they
believed in.
        Yet I imagine there was more to it than just their religious orthodoxy, because the truth is
they didn’t need to believe in the Resurrection. Being rich and powerful, being politically well-
connected and religiously respected, being in all ways quite the opposite of the likes of Job, the
Sadducees had no need of the Resurrection. Getting the good stuff in this life, they had no need to
hope for another chance after death. Moreover, being on top in this life might compel them not to
hope for anything more, for it might have seemed to them that there was no where to go but down.
This continues to be true: for those whose life in this world involves a daily struggle to survive, hope
in a Resurrection of some sort seems to thrive, while for those whose life in this world involves
leisure and luxury and nearly no thought of death, there is little reason to hope for life after death.
After all, how could an imagined paradise compare to the very real paradise that some people
(though a precious few) live here and now? How could heaven—which, of course, will be lovely,
what with the clouds and angels and harp music and pearly gates—hold a candle to a house with
central heating, central plumbing, and a mountain view right here in the Berkshires? Surely heaven
is better than, say, Cabrini Green, but how does it compare to the fields of green that we know?
        It was with such confidence in the reality and rightness of this world that some Sadducees
came to Jesus to ask him a question. They called him, “Teacher,” though it seems sarcastic: they
didn’t seem to believe he would have much to teach them. And, of course, they asked a trick
question: “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man
shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.”
        Now, this was true enough. The Law of Moses did provide guidelines for how people might
experience eternal life—that is, through their children and their children’s children; furthermore, it
provided guidelines for what to do when the urge to on-going life is thwarted—that is, if someone
dies before having the chance to have children. It was, then, not only socially acceptable, but fully

expected for being religiously prescribed, that the brother of a man who died childless and leaving a
widow would marry the widow and bear children with her for the sake of his brother.
        But the situation the Sadducees imagined bordered on the absurd. There were seven
brothers and a woman who becomes the widow of them all, and yet all remained childless. If such
unlucky people do experience eternal life, the Sadducees were implying, then it must be through a
supernatural Resurrection; and yet if they are so Resurrected to some afterlife, what of their marital
status? Can we expect fights in heaven as to who gets to take this woman to bed? Will these
brothers duke it out? Will they throw their harps at each other? Will they do a smack-down on a
cloud? If so, would it hurt? I mean, aren’t clouds soft? It all reminds me of lyrics from a radio hit
in the 90s by a band that seemed to specialize in absurd lyrics: “If your eye got poked out in this life,
would it be waiting up in heaven with your wife?” What the Sadducees seemed to be after (if not
the rock band that echoed them two millennia later) was a concession that, since we don’t know the
logistics of the Resurrection, then it must not exist.
        What’s worse is that Jesus’ response doesn’t seem to offer us much help—we who might like
somehow to prove the existence of the Resurrection, or at least to justify a belief in it. Really, what
he does is make a seemingly semantic point that would speak only to scriptural literalists such as the
Sadducees, that when God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush according to the book of
Exodus, he claimed not that he was the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, but that he is the God
of Abraham and Isaac and of Jacob, this being so because these people are still alive to God.
        But before that he says this bizarre thing: “You are wrong,” bizarre because in actuality they
weren’t wrong. They had their facts about scripture exactly right; they’d imagined a possible, if
implausible, situation; they’d asked a thoroughly sensible, if also absurd, question. About what, then,
were they wrong?
        Death! Four times they referred to death. Yet if they wanted to know how things fell into
place in life after death, they should have sought after another god than the Living God. For to this
Living God, the Resurrection isn’t about death; it’s about life. It’s not even about life after death; it’s
about life. One Jewish writer whom I recently read but whose name I forgot explained that, while
he doesn’t believe Jesus was the Christ, he thoroughly believes in the Resurrection of Jesus—it
revealing not some truth about Jesus but a central truth about God: that God is life, unquenchable
life, so to believe in such a God is not to believe in death.
        Death! Four times the Sadducees referred to death, which to my mind reveals what they
truly did believe in, and indicates what Jesus meant about them being wrong. They were wrong

because they believed in death. Indeed, so absolutely and unquestioningly did they believe in death
that, even when they meant to speak of life—eternal life, life in God—they were simply fixated on
         I imagine it was this fixation, too, that Jesus meant to address in his comments about
marriage and having children. It’s likely that, if people thought the only way to live past one’s own
lifetime was to marry and have children, then the urge to marry and have children easily became
corrupted, devolved into little more than an ego trip driven by the fear of death. Just so, Jesus, in
these comments as in all other things, meant to call our attention to life, meant to move us to
believe in life, indeed meant to have us truly live the life that truly is life.
         I think this is as great a challenge for us as it was for those Sadducees. Though we might
think we believe in the Resurrection, I wonder whether we truly do. For starters, like the Sadducees,
we have no real need to believe in life after death, given that our lives before death are remarkably
comfortable, remarkably easy. In fact, also like the Sadducees, we may suspect that we do indeed
have no where to go but down; the gospel might especially feed this suspicion, as one of its central
proclamations regarding the kingdom of heaven is what’s called the great reversal—that in the
kingdom of heaven the last shall be first and the first shall be last. But more than this is that our
very understanding of life is most likely in some reference to death: to be alive is not to be dead.
But what Jesus calls us to is life without any reference to death, life without any regard for death, life
that is the Life of the Living God. Life as not circumscribed by death: can we even conceive of such
a thing? Or are we, like them, simply wrong?
         Theologian James Allison wrote a work of systematic theology whose title, I can only guess,
finds its basis in Jesus’ insight, “You are wrong.” It’s become one of my favorite tomes, worth the
price even if there were no further truth in it past the title, The Joy of Being Wrong. This is the joy, it
seems to me, those children felt in their running joyfully, in a place where they were wrong to feel
such joy, amidst circumstances where they were wrong to feel such joy. Surrounded by despair and
destitution and death, they were joyfully wrong about life—for that moment at least full of hope, full
of life, full of the joy of being right about God.
         This, of course, is the wrongness we are called into: either living right with the world and so
wrong about God, or living wrong in the world and so faithful to God; that is, either living lives
circumscribed by death, or living Life as God lives life. It might seem at first glance to be an easy
choice, for the former would put us in company with the Sadducees—wealthy, powerful,
comfortable, justified in all we know and believe, while the later might just land us with Job in

Cabrini Green. But here again we would be wrong, for while the former is a big build-up in
avoidance of death, the latter is standing in face of death, even moving through death, to get to the
Life that really is Life.
        This is no easy journey, or so I would guess, for I can’t claim to have made it myself. Just so,
this is the purpose of the church in my life—to gather with those who want just this, Life, and to
journey whose way is from life to life.
        Thanks be to God.


Shared By: